Geographically and geopolitically “the notion of ‘insularity’ has been a decisive feature of Cuban culture,” says Brazilian photographer Rodrigo Sombra. The collapse of the Soviet Union – and later the lift of the US’s travel ban – gradually opened the country up to tourism and capitalism, complicating this narrative and perceptions of Cuba both home and abroad. Intrigued by the questions this raises about national identity and his own presence as a foreigner, Rodrigo explores these ideas in _Insular Night: Invisible Gardens_, a photo series formed across four years of visits to the island.
Rodrigo was an undergraduate journalist when he first found his love for photography. “I’d just take pictures of my girlfriend, my family and friends,” he tells It’s Nice That, “but soon it became a major tool of self-inquiry for me – a way to probe the world and my place in it.” Allowing this work to remain a pastime, after graduating Rodrigo moved to San Francisco to embark on a master’s in cinema studies. It was there he realised that photography was the discipline he had to pursue. “I always thought I’d end up being a film director,” he recalls. “But I quickly realised that the amount of collective work involved in filmmaking somehow obstructed the more intimate practice I discovered with photography.”
This sense of closeness is the foundation of Rodrigo’s practice and introduces a tenderness to his work. “I establish this pact of intimacy with my subjects which, although often fleeting, has an intensity that leaves a trace on the image,” he muses, adding: “There is something so beautiful and uncanny in sharing that process with someone.”
This slow and “contemplative gaze” enables projects like Insular Night to unfold in a gradual, more organic way. “When I decided to visit Cuba and photograph it for the first time I wasn’t clear on what direction to take,” he recalls. “I was very open to whatever happened coming out of the encounters I’d have there.” Over the four years that followed Rodrigo visited the country for a cumulative five months. “They were meandering: I’d plan to stay a couple days in a city and end up stretching my stay for two weeks,” he says, reflecting on the looseness and spontaneity of these journeys.
On his first visit, struck by how “life seemed to gravitate around the foreigners,” Rodrigo became fascinated by the diminishing insularity of Cuba and his own participation in that as a foreigner. This awareness is palpable in his images where heavy shadows and fragmented snapshots always maintain a level of opacity; Rodrigo understands that he can never fully know, or presume to reveal, the realities of this island to which he is merely a visitor.
Over time, leaving and returning to Cuba, Rodrigo became increasingly aware of the West’s “illusory assumption that the socialist experience in Cuba has produced an overwhelming uniformity of the country’s cultural life.” Contrary to these expectations, Rodrigo explains how he “found on the island a profusion of ways of living and ways of perceiving oneself, of stylising bodies, objects, houses – a profusion of ways of being that exists largely outside the state-directed ideology.” It was to that truth, alien to dominant clichés, that Rodrigo aimed his camera, yielding raw yet dreamlike images that offer a glimpse at an often overlooked reality.
Insular Night: Invisible Gardens is available as an edited photobook and can be purchased from Paper Journal here.